Final Four crowds show women still catching up

Tuesday night’s NCAA women’s basketball championship game at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis would seem destined to pack the house.

After its upset of the heavily favored University of Connecticut, the University of Notre Dame is looking to claim the title against fellow underdog Texas A&M, which beat Stanford on Sunday. The matchup features a home-state hero in Notre Dame, which should help put more fans in the seats.

Those familiar with women’s basketball, however, say the game isn’t likely to be a sellout. As of Tuesday morning, tickets priced at $87.50 each were still available at the Conseco Fieldhouse box office for the 8:43 p.m. contest.

Despite having an in-state team in the Final Four and only 18,500 seats to fill, attendance at Conseco Fieldhouse was sparse Sunday for the semifinal round, with a total of 16,421 attending the two-game session.

Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today and president of the Association for Women in Sports Media, said Tuesday night’s matchup could look even more barren because the favorites have been eliminated. Most of the fans and officials from UConn and Stanford as well as the media personnel covering those teams have likely headed for home.

“There will be spots all along press row where newspaper reporters have gone home,” she predicted at a panel discussion about women’s basketball at IUPUI on Monday.

The game will need to be a sellout to avoid being one of the least-attended title games since the turn of the century. Every championship game since 2000 has drawn at least 18,211 fans. Last year’s title tilt in San Antonio drew 22,936, the biggest crowd in five years. The semifinals drew 25,817.

Indianapolis has seen big crowds for women's basketball in the past. More than 28,000 fans saw the title game at the RCA Dome in 2005.

The NCAA said attendance of regional rounds for this year’s women’s tournament was up 65 percent from last year, but the crowd at Conseco on Sunday shows there is still a big gap between the popularity of women’s and men’s basketball.

The men’s Final Four, which concluded in Houston Monday night, drew a record 145,797 to three games, with 75,412 on hand for Monday’s final game.  

Basketball remains the NCAA’s most popular women’s sport, but fans have been more selective in shelling out money for tickets in the wake of the recession.

Experts say the economy also took a toll on media coverage. As newspapers downsized, so did coverage for many teams. For newspaper sports desks, less-popular women’s sports beats are often the first to go. Last year’s women’s Final Four drew 100 fewer credentialed media members than it did in 2008.

Universities remain committed to keeping the sport a high-profile part of their athletic programs even though it’s a money-losing proposition. Bloomberg News noted that 53 public institutions across the six largest NCAA conferences reported big losses on women’s basketball in the past fiscal year.

College athletic directors often operate in the red with most sports, relying on revenue from football and men’s basketball to fund their operations. Women’s basketball is no exception, but its costs are significantly higher because of the nature of the sport, said Fred Glass, director of athletics for Indiana University.

“By and large, while there’s some exceptions at different places, women’s basketball is widely seen as one of the most prominent women’s sports,” Glass said. “It’s certainly treated that way by the NCAA. It sometimes carries the flag for women’s sports more broadly. That makes it significant.”

Glass, who runs a department of 24 varsity sports, said he does not sacrifice competitiveness in one sport for competitiveness in another. This makes some financial costs unavoidable. While women’s volleyball is comparable in revenue to the Hoosier women’s basketball program, the costs are very different.

“Coaches in women’s basketball tend to be more expensive than coaches in other women’s sports and coaches in other men’s sports as well, but we want to be competitive there,” he said. “Basketball is clearly more expensive and probably costs us more than any other women’s sport.”


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